Abbie Jury marvels at the first magnolia blooms of the season coinciding with Matariki, both heralding the start of a new gardening year.
I am a Jury. Ergo I love deciduous magnolias. Why does one follow the other, you may wonder. My very late father-in-law, Felix Jury, was the creator of such varieties as ‘Vulcan’ and ‘Iolanthe’, among others, and we still have the original plants here in the garden at Tikorangi. I am married to the man who created ‘Black Tulip’, ‘Felix Jury’, ‘Honey Tulip’ and ‘Burgundy Star’, with more to come soon.
I have long declared that the first blooms on the magnolias herald the start of a new gardening year. The first one to open for us is always the pink Magnolia campbellii in our park. It is one of the earliest harbingers of spring and we usually get the first flower a few days after the winter solstice, which is around June 21.
Enter Matariki, which we celebrated as a nation on June 24 this year. While we accept the Gregorian calendar dating back to 1582, that only determines the elements of time that are derived from Earth’s position in the solar system – such as the length of individual months, equinoxes and solstices. The assignment of certain dates to celebrations is an arbitrary human decision. The determination that January 1 is the start of a new year is based entirely on northern hemisphere tradition and it happens to come nine or 10 days after the winter solstice. What I find fascinating is that Māori arrived at the same conclusion, give or take a few days. It may be six months out of step as far as the calendar goes, but it is synchronised with the seasons.
Matariki is determined by the rising in the sky of the star formation generally known as the Pleiades and the start of the new lunar year. It just so happens that Matariki occurs within a few days of the winter solstice in New Zealand. It seems perfectly logical to me and of much greater relevance to my gardening year than the January 1 date.
Our pink Magnolia campbellii is not quite as predictable as the solstice dates and it doesn’t hit its peak display until well into July, but that first bloom bravely opens around the time of Matariki and is a significant seasonal marker for me. Each year, I don my woolly gloves on fine, frosty mornings and head out to capture the one beautiful line of sight we have with the blooms on the bare tree and the snowy slopes of Te Mounga – Mount Taranaki – behind. I am using a zoom lens – Te Mounga is somewhere more than 35km in the distance.
That magnolia was first sold in New Zealand in the latter half of the 19th century by a Lower Hutt nurseryman commonly referred to as Quaker Mason, on account of him being a Quaker. It was also the first magnolia planted in our garden by my father-in-law, Felix Jury, in the early 1950s. This pink M. campbellii is probably the most recognisable form in the country. Interestingly, that is unusual internationally. In the wild, most campbellii are white. The pink ones are limited to a small area around Darjeeling in India and we should count ourselves lucky that Quaker Mason just happened to get a particularly good form of the unusual pink one to popularise here.
The magnolia flowering season from late June to September is a special time of year for us. We have many magnolias, both named varieties and species and unnamed hybrids from the breeding programme. This is a plant family where the larger the plants get, the bigger the show they make.
For me, the deciduous magnolias hold pride of place. That display of bare blooms on a tree with no foliage can take my breath away. Because we have large trees, I am often looking up from below and I describe it as floral skypaper.
When I look down, I see the petal carpets on the ground and I have a great fondness for petal carpets. However, I will concede they are not great on paths, driveways and sealed areas where the carpet can soon turn to slippery brown sludge. We use a leaf rake or leaf blower on sealed areas but leave the petals on grass or garden.
Most of the deciduous magnolias are Asiatic in origin – particularly areas of China, northern India and Nepal. The exception is the one truly yellow deciduous species – Magnolia acuminata – which is from North America. It is one of the parents of all the yellow hybrids that have become available in the last 25 years.
The US is also the homeland of the most popular evergreen magnolias widely grown here. These are characterised by heavy, leathery leaves and large white flowers. I am not a fan of the evergreen grandiflora types; the ratio of flower to foliage is not high enough for my liking. I prefer the 100 percent flower to 0 percent foliage of most deciduous varieties.
Michelias, on the other hand, are all Asian in origin, with many also being found in tropical areas, so into southern China, Vietnam and Thailand. These are also evergreen but smaller overall, with softer, smaller leaves than the leathery American ones and a higher ratio of flowers. Botanically, they are magnolias, but they look very different to the deciduous magnolias and they fill a different role in the garden.
Magnolias are ancient, evolving before bees emerged. It is thought that they were originally pollinated by beetles. Now they provide a food source for bees at a time of short supply in late winter.
We get deeper, richer colouring in magnolias in New Zealand. It is likely to be related to our soils, climate and the clarity of light. The same plant can look very different with the colour washing out, particularly in Northern Europe and the UK where winters are longer and colder and light levels lower.
Deciduous magnolias come in pink, white, purple, yellow and red. Aotearoa is recognised internationally as leading the way on breeding red magnolia hybrids, initiated by Felix Jury with ‘Vulcan’ and continued by Mark Jury, Vance Hooper and Ian Baldick.
No, you cannot get very large blooms on a deciduous magnolia that will stay a small plant under two metres. Smaller-growing varieties will have smaller blooms and the vast majority of deciduous magnolias are trees, not shrubs.
If you have a magnolia where the buds either drop off or fail to open properly, it is a sign either of frost damage or pest damage by rats or possums.
When deciduous magnolias have new leaves that are clearly distorted on opening, it is an indication of spray drift. Lawn spray is the main culprit. If you feel you must spray your lawn, don’t do it in early spring when the leaf buds on magnolias are about to break into growth.
The limited range of species that were all that was available in the past could take 15 to 20 years before they set flower buds. Nowadays, you can expect magnolias to bloom within a couple of years of planting and some will even be sold with flower buds.
Botanically, I have used a bit of shorthand in this article. When I write Magnolia campbellii, it is technically Magnolia campbellii var campbellii and Magnolia ‘Lanarth’ is technically Magnolia campbellii var mollicomata ‘Lanarth’.